Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf: a work of literary magic

To call this novel original doesn’t do justice to such a phantasmagoric work of art.

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In 2018 the Afrofuturistic film Black Panther, based on the Marvel superhero comics of the same name, took $1.3bn at the box office and became the second-highest grossing film of the year worldwide. These are interesting times because before Black Panther the argument against investing in black films, let alone fantasy, was that they wouldn’t sell.

This same argument was also used against publishing fiction about Africa until about 15 years ago, when reality started to prove otherwise, as a new generation of writers broke through. Today, black writers are changing the overwhelming whiteness of fantasy fiction. Many of them draw on hitherto underexploited African mythology, including Nnedi Okorafor, who writes for adults, children and the young adult market, and Tade Thompson, whose 2016 sci-fi novel Rosewater is set in Nigeria in 2066. The Kugali comic anthologies also feature African superheroes and epic fantasies inspired by traditional African stories.

Into this speculative world blazes the brilliant Jamaican writer Marlon James with his latest novel, Black Leopard Red Wolf, the first in a planned “Dark Star” trilogy. The protagonist is a man called Tracker who is relaying his story to a mysterious “inquisitor” whose identity is at first withheld.

Like Grenouille in Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, Tracker has an extraordinary sense of smell and we discover he was hired by a slaver to track down a missing boy and bring him back, dead or alive. As a subplot, Tracker also wants to avenge the death of his father and brother, although we’re told early on that the man he thought was his grandfather was actually his father.

Consumed with rage and grief, he travels into otherworldly ancient kingdoms where he encounters supernatural beings who help or hinder him on his quest, including a fellow mercenary who is both leopard and man and, at various times, friend, mentor, lover, foe.

Gender, sexuality, masculinity, fatherhood and identity are recurring tropes. Tracker talks about the Luala Luala people who live in an idealised African realm. He says that they “have man who live with man like wife, and woman who live with woman like husband, and man and woman with no man or woman, who live as they choose, and in all these things there is no strangeness”. In another section there is the city of Malakal “where men loved men, priests married slaves, and sadness was washed away with palm wine and masuku beer”.

This complex book, light on exposition, requires careful reading and some things aren’t always clear. Tracker is seemingly bisexual. He both sleeps with women and describes the woman “raging inside me and I desired her desires, but otherwise did not feel like a woman for I wanted to hunt deer, and run and sport”. The novel challenges gender stereotypes while commensurately depicting a traditionally masculine African universe, with an occasional nod to feminist retribution. Tracker is accosted by a threatening group of women with, “Long cocks, or what looked like cocks between their legs, thick and swinging quick.” They are the Bultungi, who have no time for men. Soon enough they metamorphose into hyenas and one of them ends up licking Tracker’s left eye then sucking it so hard “the whole thing plopped out of my lids and into her mouth. She pulled it slow. She licked around it once, twice, three times, and I think I said no. Please. No. Then she bit it off.”

Like James’s Man Booker Prize-winning third book, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), this novel is uncompromising in its violence. Tracker is constantly having to prove his manhood to those who would emasculate him. He is not averse to committing acts of violence himself, although usually it’s because he must outwit demons before they kill him.

James’s epic tale is not so much about a hero battling the odds as a morally ambiguous man fending off seemingly amoral beings. Ultimately, Tracker is undertaking a rite of passage where he must conquer his own baser instincts, fears, desires and uncertainties on his journey of self-discovery. It’s a psychoanalyst’s dream read.

The vigorous, bathetic prose veers from the heightened style of Greek epics to fabricated African languages to syntactic traces of West African pidgin and Caribbean patois. To call this novel original doesn’t do justice to such a phantasmagoric work of art. People die then die again. A child consists of blue smoke. Another one is shaped like a ball with no legs. There are tiny people, Yumboes, who are less than a foot tall. A woman walks high up underneath the ceiling, where children sleep while levitating. Another woman is created out of oil. Time is fluid and shape-shifting anthropomorphism abounds.

James has thrown African cultures, mythologies, religions, customs, histories, rituals, world-views and topographies into the mighty cauldron of his imagination to create a work of literary magic. 

Bernardine Evaristo’s new novel “Girl, Woman, Other” will be published by Hamish Hamilton in May

Black Leopard Red Wolf
Marlon James
Hamish Hamilton, 640pp, £20

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State